Our Best Friends Lick Their Own Butts—Why Dogs Have Us By the Short Hairs

Photo by Mandy Henry on Unsplash

Guy walks through his tiny apartment door at 6 p.m., looking like something the cat dragged in. The worst day.  Boss chewed him out Girlfriend hung up on him. Tire blew on the way home. Greeting him at the door is a wide-eyed, tail wagging wiener dog, with deep-soulful eyes and a grin. Ginger doesn’t care that the guy who just turned the key in the door is today’s biggest loser. He’s the best thing that’s happened to her all day.

“The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world—the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous—is his dog.” 

The lawyer who said that should know. George Graham Vest is attributed with the phrase, “man’s best friend.” Vest argued before the Supreme Court in 1870 that his dog was an “important member of the family.” He sued his neighbor who shot the dog for trespassing. He didn't just shoot Old Drum. He killed a family member. 

We go way back with dogs. Man and best friend began their partnership 15,000 years ago. They traveled across East Asia, striking up friendships and allegiances wherever they went. Men in packs, dogs in packs—both social--go way back. Human-dog interdependence is based on mutual need: survival and comfort. 

Words cannot unpack the aeons old pact between a man and a dog. Literary style authorities don’t even know what to call them. The AP Stylebook and APA Publication Manual agree that animals with names and known genders are “he’s” and “she’s.” But they differ on whether a named animal is a “who” or a “that”. The Chicago Manual of Style does not approve of “he” or “she” for dogs but refers to ships as “she’s.” But we know better. Deep down, we know they are inextricable from our own identities. We call them girl and boy—”Here Lassie, here girl.” “Here Cujo, here boy.”

They’re family. We see them to the end.

The 12-year-old wants a rescue dog. So, we go to the park and meet Melanie, the rescue lady. She brings Willie, the Australian Cattle dog, who immediately tries to eat my 9-year-old. No dice. But I look over to the makeshift pen behind Melanie and eye a gorgeous red Merle Australian Shepherd. Next thing I know I’m being dragged on a ten-foot leash though the park by this dog being chased by invisible demons. Exhausted, I sit down on the grass to rest, the dog ten feet away. “Dude, you’re not making a case for yourself.” Head down, I suddenly feel a warm tongue on my ear. Ok, we’ll give it a go.

Six months and $1,600.00 worth of dog training from a police dog trainer who looked like the anti-dog whisperer (shaved head, a trail of cigarette butts behind him), Kiah mastered her fear response from nipping to retreat. She was the best dog—even chased off a burglar from the house. She herded us for eleven years. 

When we were huddled around her just as the vet injected her with her final sleep, she suddenly stood up, as if she had not been too sickly to live just a second ago, walked over to me and licked my ear. She then lay down and died.

They don’t judge. That’s huge.

“Do you think Julie’s my type? I’ll take your silence as a ‘yes’.” 

A dog is the happy-go-lucky friend who offers a high five, fist bump, back slap (in the form of a tail wag) to the man coming through the door—just for breathing, just for being there. You can’t marry a dog, but you might be better off if you did—they’ve got all the qualities we want—understanding, loyalty, love. And a dog costs a whole lot less (than marriage)—lol. 

All that’s left, in the end, of marital bliss over a Dalmatian’s lifespan are the qualities that cement a lifetime bond and friendship. The dog’s got them. The marriage—it’s a gamble.

Besides, dogs are fun. They hunt, herd, listen. And they’re fun to watch—they unhinge over the simplest things: a bird, the mail carrier, your neighbor’s garage door opening, the wind, or something beyond our comprehension. They’ll lie at your feet, bolt suddenly upright, eyes fixed on the unknown, unseen, and unheard. Often, the moment passes as quickly and mysteriously as it came.

Dogs even improve our health. Time magazine reports dogs extend lifespans, lower the risk for heart disease, improve allergies and asthma in kids, and reduce the health risks associated with loneliness. 

Lotharios know dogs are great conversation starters—they’re chick magnets—which only works if a dog’s condition and care says the owner isn’t an asshole (i.e., we walk, feed, groom, vaccinate, and exercise them).

A dog reveals the character of people around him.

Dogs are excellent judges of characters. As Woodrow Wilson once said, “If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.” 

FDR had a dog named Fala that traveled with him extensively. In 1944, Fala went with the President to stay on the USS Baltimore, after it had returned from a secret mission supporting the attack on Iwo Jima. Onboard the ship, it became the habit for sailors to snip off locks of the famous dog’s coat and mail them back home. Fala, prone to stirring up a fuss, never barked. It may have trusted the sailors so implicitly that, after many of them collected their bits of hair, it had let itself be almost completely shorn. 

Dogs know humans on a level unknown to humans themselves. They reveal us and can’t fake it. But, unlike most people, they reveal us with total acceptance. If our dogs disappoint, it is likely we have let them down—not they us. 

These sidekicks would take a bullet for us.

For all they give, they ask nothing in return. Oh, maybe a dog treat here and there, a walk, a game of catch, and food. Any toilet would do for water. In the world of givers and takers, dogs are the ultimate givers. “I’m here.” And nothing else matters—not the boss, girlfriend, or car.

Dogs feel useful working—like a man does. Dogs prevent and solve crime, sniffing out bombs, fugitives, poison, and weed. Service dogs for the blind and disabled have been around since the 1500s. German shepherds are the K-9 unit’s breed of choice (a 200-year lineage), a partner to chase down suspects or chill with on a stakeout, munching donuts and drinking coffee (no coffee for the dog!)

Pack animals know the order of things—who’s top dog, old dog, new dog, and outsider dog. And if a new dog in a household needs schooling, the other dog or dogs will straighten out the newcomer. No passive-aggressive barbs and resentments. They hash it out. Conflict resolved.

Dogs are interested in everything human, never get tired of the routine, never complain, always up for a game of soccer, or just watching the game. Generous and spiritual, dogs don't hold grudges. 

Dogs are the original zen masters. They live in the immediate moment—with the fullness of their attention. Their senses are alive with every morsel of sound, sight, and smell around them. They’d gladly share a pepperoni pizza and ride shotgun, any time. 

Our dogs are family, forgive endlessly, know us better than we know ourselves, and would do anything for us, if they could. Weimaraner, Rottweiler, Greyhound, Pitbull, Poodle—any breed (even the Husky and Golden Doodle at my feet)—when George Graham Vest called dogs our best friends,

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Pam Gerber

The author was born at the epicenter—Brooklyn. She once drove a rebuilt 74 VW Bug cross country (and made it to D.C.). She insists on brutal honesty, isn't above engaging in a minor scuffle if it comes to that, and lives by Whitman’s, 'Being with people I like is enough.'

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